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Argentina’s Andean Cat Power Couple

Cintia Tellaeche and Juan Reppucci in the altiplano of the high Andes, northwestern Argentina
Cintia Tellaeche and Juan Reppucci in the altiplano of the high Andes, northwestern Argentina

We have already met Bolivia’s Andean Cat power couple and now it’s time to meet the Andean Cat power couple of Argentina, Cintia Tellaeche and Juan Reppucci. With eighteen years of combined field experience these two have led the research in understanding the ecology of the Andean Cat.

Cintia Tellaeche and Juan Reppucci determining the root up a mountain in the altiplano of the high Andes, northwestern Argentina
Cintia Tellaeche and Juan Reppucci determining the route up a mountain in the altiplano of the high Andes, northwestern Argentina
Juan Reppucci checking a camera trap in the altiplano of the high Andes, northwestern Argentina
Juan Reppucci checking a camera trap in the altiplano of the high Andes, northwestern Argentina

Using camera traps (see picture above) they were able to come up with the first density estimates of Andean Cats. They determined that in their study area, Andean Mountain Cats occurred at an average density of 0.095 individuals per square kilometers. Compare that that to the Pampas Cat, which live in the same area in the Andes, and who have a density of 0.76 individuals per square kilometer, and you realize exactly how rare the Andean cat really is. To put it into even simpler terms, Juan and Cintia calculated that there is one Andean Cat per every 10.50 square kilometers (that’s about the size of 500 city blocks). Talk about finding a needle in a haystack…..

However, they overcame this challenge in 2012, when they were one of the first people ever to collar Andean Cats. (They have collared five Andean Cats and six Pampas Cats in total!!)

Cintia Tellaeche trying to locate female Andean Cat through telemtry to download data, Andes, northwestern Argentina
Cintia Tellaeche trying to locate a female Andean Cat at over 14,000 feet through telemetry to download data, Andes, northwestern Argentina
Juan Reppucci looking really hardcare while trying to locate female Andean Cat through telemtry to download data, Andes, northwestern Argentina
Juan Reppucci looking really hardcore while trying to locate a female Andean Cat through telemetry to download data, Andes, northwestern Argentina

They are continuously trying to collar new cats (and re-collar older ones) to determine habitat use, activity patterns, and how those compare to the closely related Pampas Cat which lives in the same area as the Andean Cat. This work is in no way easy. Constantly running up and down 15,000 foot mountains not only leaves you breathless but can have more severe effects.

Cintia Tellaeche has a bloody nose from the effects of high altitude, northwestern Argentina
Cintia Tellaeche has a bloody nose from the effects of high altitude, northwestern Argentina — this probably would have slowed down and made most people turn around to get to lower altitudes but Cintia kept trucking on as if nothing happened. Saying that she is a strong person would be an understatement.
The nights in the mountains can easily get to - 20ºC (-4°F) below zero. Sure makes Cintia Tellaeche happy to have a good sleeping bag,
The nights in the mountains can easily get to – 20ºC (-4°F) below zero. Sure makes Cintia Tellaeche happy to have a good sleeping bag!

Cintia and Juan are gearing up now to go back into the field next year. These research expeditions (and they are expeditions) require not only the researchers never-ending commitment (which Juani and Cintia more than have),  but they also require money. Since they are too humble to ask for donations, I will ask for them. By donating to the Andean Cat Alliance you can directly help these amazing biologists uncover even more information about the Andean Cat. Their data will provide the baseline information needed to make proper conservation decisions on how to protect the Andean Cat.

On a personal note, I was able to spend two weeks with both Cintia and Juani in the field. Their work ethic is awe inspiring, their resilience breathtaking.

Juani and Cintia, I am so very honored to call you friends.

 

 

 

Bolivia’s Andean Cat Power Couple

When a couple chooses to put cat prints on their wedding bands, you know they mean business, La Paz, Bolivia
When a couple chooses to put cat prints on their wedding bands, you know they mean business, La Paz, Bolivia

In the last blog post I kept mentioning “we” when talking about our journey to Andean Cat habitat. The simple reason: I was not alone. In fact, I was joined by what I think of as the Andean Cat power couple of Bolivia. Meet Juan Carlos Huaranca Ariste and Alejandra Rocio Torrez Tarqui.

Alejandra Rocio Torrez Tarqui and Juan Carlos Huaranca Ariste in the Altiplano, western Bolivia
Alejandra Rocio Torrez Tarqui and Juan Carlos Huaranca Ariste in the Altiplano, western Bolivia

As a pair they cover every topic in regards to Andean Cat conservation. Juan Carlos is the principal Bolivian biologist conducting research on the wild cat. His main focus has been determining areas in which the Andean Cat has high densities and population numbers within the country. He talks to local people and deploys camera traps in the field. He has been doing so since 2004. More recently, he has also started to take on undergraduate students, advising them on their own Andean Cat studies. With this baseline ecological data, proper conservation actions can be drawn up for the species. Juan Carlos has been and still is the expert at acquiring that data in Bolivia.

Juan Carlos Huaranca Ariste checking camera trap for Andean Cats. Ciudad de Pedra, western Bolivia
Juan Carlos Huaranca Ariste checking camera trap for Andean Cats. Ciudad de Pedra, western Bolivia
Its common for Juan Carlos to stop and to speak to locals about the Andean Cat!
Its common for Juan Carlos to stop and to speak to locals about the Andean Cat!
Juan Carlos surveying valley, western Bolivia
Juan Carlos surveying valley, western Bolivia

Alejandras focuses most of her attention on environmental education and outreach programs for the Andean Cat. She has been leading school workshops and activities in the country since 2008. Having had the honor of spending a few weeks with her, its obvious her wheels are constantly turning as she comes up with additional lesson plans, activities, or ideas that will inspire the children she teaches to care about the Andean Mountain Cat. Pretty awesome!

No classroom is too small for Alejandra Rocio Torrez Tarqui!
No class size is too small for Alejandra Rocio Torrez Tarqui!
Alejandra helps a student with a quiz about Andean Cats, western Bolivia.
Alejandra helps a student with a quiz about Andean Cats, western Bolivia.
Alejandra points out the distinct stripes of the Andean Cat's tail, western Bolivia.
Alejandra points out the distinct stripes of the Andean Cat’s tail, western Bolivia.

Both Alejandra and Juan Carlos’s work is incredibly crucial to the long term survival of the Andean Cat in Bolivia. Juan Carlos’s research is determining where the species still has a stronghold in the country. This information provides the necessary data to create new protected areas for the cat. Alejandra’s education programs shift the traditional thinking of the local people that the Andean Cat is a threat to their livestock. Even though they can be considered the best in the country at doing these jobs, they are not able to fulfill these roles full-time since the Andean Cat Alliance is simply not in a financial position to maintain them in that capacity. Let’s donate to the Andean Cat Alliance and help the Andean Cat by supporting Juan Carlos’ and Alejandra’s projects.

Bolivian Altiplano: Region of the Andean Cat

Altiplano, Ciudad de Piedra, western Bolivia
Altiplano, Ciudad de Piedra, western Bolivia

The Altiplano, or high altitude plateau, is a special place. Stretching from northern Argentina to central Peru, it is the second highest plain in the world (after Tibet), with an average of over 12,000 feet. La Paz, the captial city of Bolivia which I introduced in the last blog post, lies within the Altiplano, but to find the cats we needed to head out of the city and to higher elevations.  We made our way southwest towards where Bolivia borders Chile and Peru. Our final destination was Ciudad de Piedra (stone city) at the ‘comfortable’ altitude of 4000 meters or slightly more than 13,000 feet.

The Altiplano is a region, not a habitat, so when you travel through it you encounter different plant communities and types of rock formations. At first came the gently rolling Puna grasslands as we slowly climbed in altitude.

Puna grassland in the Altiplano, western Bolivia
Storm clouds over Puna grassland in the Altiplano, western Bolivia

Though beautiful, we had to move on as the Andean Cats are not primarily found in these grass communities. The soil became harder and the grasses less frequent.

Altiplano, western Bolivia
Altiplano, western Bolivia

Still, we moved on. We then took a turn off the main dirt road to slowly crawl up this beautiful river valley. We were now in Andean Cat habitat. The cat prefers steep rocky areas in which its favorite prey, the Southern Viscacha (Lagidium viscacia) — future blog post to come — lives. After settling into camp life, we took a stroll up along the river. With every step, the beauty of the place became more apparent.

River flowing through valley in altiplano, Ciudad de Piedra, western Bolivia
River flowing through valley in altiplano, Ciudad de Piedra, western Bolivia

In the afternoon, we decided to scale one of the cliffs to get a better vantage point. Reaching the top was difficult work as every step is challenging, oxygen is sparse at this altitude (aka the air is thin!). Once we did though, we were once again reminded why its called a plain. This labyrinth of rocks was lying in front of us, seemingly creating this endless plateau. It was a sight to behold.

Altiplano, Ciudad de Piedra, western Bolivia
Altiplano, Ciudad de Piedra, western Bolivia

The reality of course is that this plain is continuously dissected by different sized canyons and making one’s way through them is no easy task, especially when the entrance and exit to the canyons are hard to find. The views in them though, are especially stunning.

Grasses in canyon in Altiplano, Ciudad de Piedra, western Bolivia
Grasses in canyon in Altiplano, Ciudad de Piedra, western Bolivia
Cacti in canyon in the Altiplano, Ciudad de Piedra, western Bolivia
Cacti in canyon in the Altiplano, Ciudad de Piedra, western Bolivia

This is no easy place to live, and in some way the Andean Cat has probably been able to hold on because not many people choose to settle in this harsh environment. I felt incredibly privileged to share its space, even with all its challenges.

Arriving in Bolivia, home of the Andean Cat

Lama blanket in La Paz, Bolivia
Lama blanket in La Paz, Bolivia

This is my first trip to Bolivia, actually, this is my first tip to all of South America. After being here in La Paz, the capital city of Bolivia, for three days now, I already have the itch to go back, even though I haven’t even left yet.

View over the city from a gondola, La Paz, Bolivia
View over the city from a gondola, La Paz, Bolivia

La Paz lies at over 11,000 feet on the western slopes of the Andes. It sprawls over quite a large three dimensional area, with houses covering a large number of the incredibly steep hillsides. When I arrived at the airport I was immediately greeted by a swath of cab drivers offering me a ride. This is the one thing I needed to make sure, to get into an official taxi (so as not to possibly get robbed). My more than affordable hotel is right in the city center, with wifi to boot.

From here I get to explore the brilliantly colored textiles that are practically falling out of the permanent and pop-up shops lining the streets. I don’t think I’ll ever get enough of those colors.

Colorful alpaca fabrics, La Paz, Bolivia
Colorful alpaca fabrics, La Paz, Bolivia

Since I arrived just before Easter and with Bolivia being a mostly Catholic country I’ve been in for more than a treat. I have never had the privilege of witnessing a procession, but I have to admit it was quite moving to see.

Easter Procession, La Paz, Bolivia
Easter Procession, La Paz, Bolivia

Thousands of people were lining Santa Cruz Avenue, the main street in the city to watch as dedicated Catholics carried wooden statues on heavy wooden frames down the long street. The weight of these religious objects was more than apparent, but these cloaked men and women showed no sign of fatigue. Even more moving were the hundreds of people that followed the statues. When the road was blocked and the procession came to a standstill they at first waited patiently and then began to sing. I could feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up as their song grew in strength and unison.

Easter Procession, La Paz, Bolivia
Easter Procession, La Paz, Bolivia

If we could get that kind of following for the Andean Cat, we’d for sure be set. We probably can’t quite compete with the catholic church, but will do our best to win people over.

We are heading into the field tomorrow for over two weeks. Will report back after our return.

Preparing to Photograph a Cat at High Altitude

You have get up to elevation to get used to it!
You have get up to elevation to get used to it!

As is probably obvious by its name, the Andean Mountain Cat lives at altitude. That however, would be putting it mildly as it’s generally found above 4,000 meters (13,123 feet). At that extreme altitude, there is substantially less oxygen, which means when you try to do anything physical, it becomes a real challenge. One way around that is to acclimatize to the altitude, which generally means spending some days at ever increasing elevations. The problem I am facing is that even my starting point of La Paz, which is the capital city of Bolivia, lies at 3,640 meters (11,942 feet). Coming from sea level in California to that elevation would be no joke. So, to get ready for this project, I wanted to get to high elevations locally to build up my red blood cell count here, which would help me at least a little for the lack of oxygen even in La Paz.

Good thing I live in a state where I can get to the Sierras within just a few hours. Enter hiking buddy and friend Marshall Moore and off we went to climb Kaiser Peak in the Kaiser Wilderness Area to get to 3,145 meters (10, 320 feet) in elevation. Getting up there was a slog, at least for me, but the views on top where quite worth it!

Sunset over Kaiser Wilderness Area, Califronia
Sunset over Kaiser Wilderness Area, seen from Kaiser Peak, California
Sierra mountain ranges at sunset, seen from Kaiser Peak, Kaiser Wilderness Area, California
Sierra mountain ranges at sunset, seen from Kaiser Peak, Kaiser Wilderness Area, California

Spending the night at that altitude should also help with getting used to the elevation. The higher red blood cell count should be good for 10-14 days, so with the Bolivia trip being in two days, the training should help with the altitude in Bolivia. At least I hope!

Cat in Water: An inspiration for Cat in Thin Air

Cat in Water Webpage -- Check it out!

Cat in Water Webpage — Check it out! 

Hi Everyone! My name is Sebastian Kennerknecht. I am a wildlife and conservation photographer and I focus my photography specifically on endangered species and wild cats. Saying that I am cat obsessed would be an understatement. I love everything about wild cats, which makes them disappearing a huge deal for me. So for the last seven years now I have been photographing wild cats all around the world, not only showing off their amazing beauty, but also their fascinating natural history, while also highlighting the threats they face, the research being done, and the conservation actions being taken.

Conservation for these cats is what I care about most, and I am willing to do what ever I can to increase their chances of survival. It is for that reason that I have long been a fan of the Cat in Water project. Cat in Water was created by Joanna Nasar and Morgan Heim (whom I got to meet a month ago, she is super awesome!) to help the endangered Fishing Cat. They were not only able to get pictures of the cat, but also they introduced more people to this amazing small cat species. That’s obviously completely awesome.

After talking to Mo about Cat in Thin Air, I realized the parallels and thought of them as kind of like sister projects. I too hope to introduce a lot more people to the Andean Mountain Cat by completing a set of conservation goals. This will include fully covering the story of the Andean Cat photographically, including its natural history, the research being done, showing the cat’s threats, and the conservation programs that many amazing people are leading for the cat.

CatinAirLogowebpage2
The official logo of the Cat in Thin Air project, created by my talented sister Teresa Kennerknecht.

That however, is just the beginning, because pictures can create change. The subsequent goals of the project will be to use the pictures to introduce and educate local and global people about the cat. We will also use the images to create a book to send to government officials to convince them to create more protected areas for the cat. And most importantly, we will use the pictures to help fund more research and more conservation to guarantee that many more people get to be as fascinated by the cat as I am. Are you interested in participating in the project? Awesome, feel free to email me!